I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Montezuma II sacrificed a baby giraffe that was given to Hernán Cortés just before his conquest of the New World. It was a gift from a prosperous Moorish caliph who had dealt diplomatically with the Catholics during their various skirmishes. The priests convinced a reluctant Cortés that the sacrifice would create a guise of trust that could ultimately be exploited to their benefit. What they did not tell him was that they grew weary of cleaning after the tiny giraffe and would like nothing better than to send the damned animal packing as quickly as possible. It was smelly and cried in the most unbearable tone. Yet despite Cortés’s fabled stoicism, he could not keep from smiling like a schoolboy when his pet drew near. It was rumored among the people that on the day that the little giraffe with its wide eyes went under the knife, Cortés wept uncontrollably. An astounded Montezuma honored this show of affection by setting diamonds at his feet. As history dictates, those days of sympathy did not last long, and the stage set upon that sacrificial altar did not sway the hearts of the empire toward peaceful coexistence. In fact, that martyred giraffe may be the reason Cortés took Tenochtitlán with such fury.
It is also known that on the day that La Malinche betrayed the Aztecs to the Spaniards, a mystic overseer turned her into a giraffe just before she was killed. He was in love with her and could not bear to put the knife to the woman who had sweetened his dreams for so many years. And so, just before he was forced to become her executioner, he uttered words under his breath and transformed her into Cortés’s favored beast. The crowd looked with astonishment at the altar and said, “See, the betrayer was a witch, she used her magic against her own people.” The mystic did not sleep well from that day forward and died under the sword of Spanish forces gratefully.
Joseph Alaya was 34 and lived with his mother in a humble town just outside the Sierra Madres. He worked in a tiny stone workshop in the basement of their home, where he conducted the family business. He was a jeweler. Day in and day out he sat on his tufted felt stool and examined the facets of multicolored rocks that rough traders brought to town to sell in the market.
That morning, a pirate came to town with a silk pouch around his waist. It was not unusual to see pirates in town or in Joseph’s workshop. What was unusual was his hastiness—this pirate was a frightened and altogether unimposing fellow and bit his nails more than occasionally. He sat down in Joseph’s office and said shakingly, “Hear you buy jewels, hear you buy things from anybody.”
“That we do,” said Joseph, “what have you got?”
“Got the tears of Cortés. Got his favorite egg. Buy them so I can go.”
Joseph looked skeptically at the pirate, who was constantly fidgeting and looking over his shoulder. “Well, let me see.” He took the pirate’s bag and laid its contents on the table. They were diamonds. Slightly elongated, exquisitely carved diamonds. He took a deep breath and tried to hide how impressed he was. He took his jeweler’s glasses to them and hummed inquisitively. They looked like two pairs of nova bursts fused to each other, perfectly symmetrical. He looked at the pirate, whose eyes were wide and pulsating and who was biting his nails. “I’ll give you ten for each.”
“Done,” said the pirate without hesitating, which surprised Joseph. “And the egg, what about the egg?” he added anxiously.
Joseph hadn’t noticed the egg. It was an unusual little thing. It was faded yellow and had reddish brown splotches on it. To Joseph it looked more like a prehistoric rock than an egg. On its top it had some strange writing that seemed to soak through the shell. He did not understand it, and set it down. “Hmmm … I don’t usually deal with this sort of thing, it’s not really marketable, I could take it for …”
“Done,” said the pirate, who took his 20 without taking any money for the egg and disappeared without a trace. “What a bizarre little fellow,” thought Joseph. He looked at the egg and the diamonds for almost an hour. He pulled out an old dusty book from his shelf, an index of rare jewels written by his grandfather, who was also a jeweler. “What did that strange man say, ‘Tears of Cortés’?” He thumbed through the book and found a minor passage describing the jewels that Montezuma II gave Cortés in honor of his sacrifice. The passage said nothing about an egg, which Joseph regarded as a prank of some sort. He read through the passage concerning the diamonds many times, and decided not to celebrate until he could verify his discovery with a second opinion. To this end he sent a letter with a photo enclosed to a friendly jeweler he had met in another town. He waited with great anticipation.
When evening came, he shared a quiet meal with his mother, then retired to the upper recesses of his home. There he looked out his window and wantonly connected the stars into various shapes and images. Tonight, he connected the image of a wedding ring in the stars. It had been on his mind for nearly a month. Joseph had no skill in speaking to women, was not particularly handsome or ugly either way, and was enraptured by sapphires and emeralds more than the gaze of a woman. However, it was widely known that he could give a wife a comfortable life, and so with frustrated arms in the air, his mother had set about finding him one. It did not take long to find her, and after a few nights of handshaking and negotiating, he was set to marry Donicia Peralta following the harvest season. She was the daughter of a fisherman who once gave him a red-bellied lobster for his birthday. She was neither particularly unattractive nor explicitly awe-inspiring to Joseph. He swirled his finger in the air and pointed to the moon. It hung just beneath a pair of vibrant binary stars. He thought about the strange little visitor who came to his workshop, about the diamonds and the odd little egg, and smiled just a bit. If the jewels were indeed the Tears of Cortés, he would never have to worry about money. Joseph yawned and harrumphed. “Wife. Why not?” Just then he thought that perhaps it would not be altogether unpleasant to eat a lobster dinner whenever he wished. Joseph was not what one would call an exceedingly passionate man.
Joseph Ayala did not rest well. He heard noises all night coming from the basement and was fearful that some hooligan was attempting to rob him. Finally just before morning, he fell into a deep sleep.
He woke up later that morning. He was not pleased with the night’s sleep and grumbled so much that his mother left early for the marketplace, where she sold trinkets from their shop. He still heard voices in the basement, and hastily set aside his breakfast to see what was the matter.
To his amazement, he found a baby giraffe sitting in the corner of the room. It sat on a baby blanket, stretching its neck just enough to see outside the window. Joseph rubbed his eyes numerous times to correct his astonished vision, but the fact of the matter was that the giraffe was there in the room, plain as every day he had ever known. It was maybe a foot shorter sitting down than Joseph was standing. It had golden hair with brownish red splotches all over it and hummed quietly in a whimsical and elfish tone. Joseph stared at it and slapped the back of his head to make sure he was awake. Sure enough, there he was, staring at a baby giraffe in the basement of his home.
He didn’t realize he had shouted “Sweet mother of God, what in sam hill is going on here?” until the giraffe began to make noises, like it was crying, and Joseph scrambled to quiet the anxious little animal. He gently patted the back of its head and said, “Now now, don’t cryanimalito, don’t cry.” All of a sudden the giraffe stopped crying and blinked its wide glistening eyes affectionately at Joseph. It began to hum as though it was pleased with the gentle pats and to sway its scrawny neck to and fro to the beat of his patting. Joseph did not want to draw attention to his little shop. He had not even told his mother about the diamonds that he’d bought from the pirate the day before. Until he could verify the authenticity of the Tears of Cortés, he would maintain discretion by any means necessary. He ran upstairs and returned with a bowl full of milk. The giraffe stopped its contorted swaying for a moment to enjoy a meal. Joseph noticed something else just then. The egg that sat on the table was cracked open. There were flecks of spotted eggshell all over the table and on the floor. He looked at the baby giraffe, which was once again blinking affectionately at him, and realized at that very instant that he had gone crazy. Since he was crazy, it made sense that he would have to secretly care for the baby giraffe until the letter from the foreign jeweler arrived. Then he would be married and have his lobster dinner as often as he liked and nothing else would matter.
Joseph slept in the basement that night but, unlike the night before, had soft and glorious dreams, although he could not remember what they were about. He awoke well rested and stretched like a sated kitten, taking in the rays of morning light that came from the little window that looked up toward the street. As things came into focus, Joseph Ayala noticed that the baby giraffe had disappeared. He looked at the corner where it had fallen asleep after many pats on the head and saw only the pile of blankets he had laid out for it. Just when he reaffirmed that he had been delusional, the pile of blankets began to stir. He rushed to see what had happened. Joseph supposed that rats had come into the basement and eaten the poor little thing alive and that those vermin were still enjoying their feast. It was not altogether impossible, so he began to pull off blanket after blanket and after he thought that there would be no end to the blankets the last one fell away to reveal what had been shuffling underneath them.
It was a woman. And it was not the average woman who sneaks into basements and hides under blankets. No. It was a beautiful woman, not entirely ungoddesslike in Joseph’s humble and untrained opinion. And naked. She was slender, with legs powerful but delicate. She had short silky hair that looked like virgin honeycombs. She was perfectly groomed, and looked as if she had never seen a day’s work. It seemed to Joseph that she had no flaw to speak of except for one mark, a scar shaped like an oblong triangle that rested just above her right breast. She didn’t speak at first, but instead began to hum in some indistinguishable language. He stepped closer to her to take a better look and noticed the same doelike brown eyes that had stared at him the day before. “Could it be?” he asked himself. She blinked her eyes at him, and at once Joseph realized that this was indeed the same creature that just the day before was a baby giraffe, and he shouted again in fear and astonishment. The woman’s eyes began to well up tears and she cried the same skull-numbing cry as the day before. Once more he thought of the diamonds and frantically tried to calm the woman down. He patted her head gently as he had the baby giraffe’s; she immediately quieted down and began to hum in the animal’s elfish tone. He continued to pat her head, and her shoulders and neck swayed from side to side. She was very happy with Joseph Ayala, and at that moment he realized that he was far beyond insane. He was only waiting for the letter, and when he had ensured that his riches were verified, he would be married and have his lobster dinner whenever he wished. Until then, he would deal with the creature in his room, even if the next day it might turn into a fire-breathing, jeweler-eating dragon.
But the letter did not come for another two weeks. And the creature did not turn into anything else other than its original form. One day it would be a baby giraffe, the next it would be a beautiful woman. From giraffe to woman, woman to giraffe, Joseph Ayala had grown accustomed to preparing the day according to the creature’s incarnation. He had set aside a bowl and blankets for the little giraffe and would produce them on that day, and the next he would have a dress he stole from his mother’s closet and a little chair for the woman, on which she would sit and stare at Joseph. In any event he kept the creature well fed and patted it gently on the head and that was enough to keep it quiet. This routine continued for a week solid with few or no problems until one day, while examining the Tears of Cortés, he turned to the beautiful woman and found her staring at him in an altogether uncomfortable manner. It was that day that Joseph Ayala found, as most other men have found in their day, that in the presence of a goddesslike woman it is nearly impossible not to become exceedingly passionate.
Her skin felt like moistened talc and her lips tasted like ripe watermelons with a hint of salt on them. Not once in his entire life had he felt like he felt when he was in the arms of this gentle woman. They made love awkwardly but excitedly and afterward, when Joseph realized he was leaning dangerously close to explicit bestiality, he shrieked. As always, the woman began to wail in her skull-numbing cry and for fear of being discovered and fear of hurting her feelings, he gently patted her on the head. A few hours later he found her sitting on the chair staring at him in the same way, and Joseph came to the conclusion that he had fallen in love with this creature. As he lay beside her for the second time that day, he wondered if this was something that happened to all men, that perhaps they had to make love to women who were previously giraffes when they were ready to fall in love. He wondered if this was a secret that none dared reveal for fear of being ridiculed should he not find solidarity among his peers. So he spent his days in secret for another week. When he went out into the streets, he looked into the eyes of other men to see if they saw what he did, if they knew about baby giraffes and virgin goddesses. But he could not distinguish one man’s look from another. To Joseph, they all looked the same. So he gave up trying to understand his situation and submitted to it.
When his newly beloved mate was a giraffe, he fed her well and patted her on the head. When she was a beautiful woman, he made love to her and patted her on the head. After the third day of this, while the giraffe was sleeping under the blankets in the basement, Joseph realized that he would be married soon, and he would have to do something about his present situation. This made him feel very nervous and guilty at once, and so he went to his mother and spilled the beans to her about what had been going on. He told her about the pirate, the diamonds, and the egg, and concluded with his less than believable confession. “Mother, I’ve fallen in love with a woman who is sometimes a giraffe and sleeps in our basement.” His mother looked at her son with a powerful grimace and then burst into laughter. “Don’t worry my son, you are just nervous about the wedding … and the first night.” She told him not to worry about the bonds of matrimony, that this happens to all men, and to stop making up stories to evade the inevitable. But by this time he was certain that other men did not have giraffes in their basements to tempt them from their future wives and so left the room without resolution.
The next day he began to cry fiercely and told his beloved that he could not bear to live without her. He told her about Donicia Peralta and his old dreams of having a lobster dinner whenever he wished, but admitted that he no longer wanted those things. He wanted to live with her, his goddess who came to him with the Tears of Cortés, and cried louder for lack of a solution to his problem. The woman sat beside him and gently patted him on the head. Immediately Joseph Ayala felt calm and smiled at his beloved. “I do not know your name,” he said. She began to hum in the elfish way and amid the sounds he heard the name Lelu. And so it was that Joseph Ayala pledged his love to Lelu. They chuckled and made love the rest of that evening. Joseph had learned how to be a passionate man.
The day finally arrived when a letter came for Joseph Ayala in the mail. It had a fancy wax seal on it and he had to sign for it. The letter read:
The artifacts you have photographed and described in your letter are indeed the fabled Tears of Cortés. I have had this notarized by the local magistrate and it will heretofore serve as documentation for your new asset. As for the egg, I cannot verify that it is of any value. Dispose of it or do with it as you see fit. Congratulations on your newfound prosperity. With kind regards. Jacob Jemez, Esq.
The letter was bittersweet. He knew now that he had stumbled upon the greatest discovery in the jewelry trade in recent memory. Soon he would be married and would prosper. But he looked at his beloved and could not help but feel nervous. He sat and pondered throughout the day what he was to do. Perhaps he could build a beautiful stable in his new home and keep the giraffe there. Every other day, he would have the beautiful woman as his mistress. But that did not feel right. He was loyal to her and only her, and it seemed very wrong to do this. He sat there and struggled, but could find no other conclusion except to run away with his beloved. He told her what he was going to do. Her big doelike eyes welled with tears and the two of them embraced fiercely.
They emerged from the basement with a small pouch in tow. Joseph Ayala went to the town square and declared that he was prepared to make an announcement. All the townspeople came to hear what it was, but most figured that he was going to propose formally to Donicia Peralta. To this end, his mother and the entire Peralta family came in their finest clothes. Joseph held out the Tears of Cortés to the public, which was stupefied by their beauty. Everyone cheered for him and his mother and Donicia nearly took to dancing. However, Joseph’s announcement was far from over. From among the crowd, the beautiful woman stepped forward. “This is Lelu. She is the woman I love and we are to depart this evening to live together and be happy.” The astonished crowd began a storm of muttering, and Donicia’s father came forward with an angry look on his face. “You bastard, have you no shame? Have you no heart to see that you have shamed my daughter?” Joseph could say nothing, and when he tried to speak he was interrupted by Donicia’s mother. “Look at that hussy, she is a traitor. She does not even look like us. Her hair. That fair shape, as though she’d never worked a day in her life. You have sold us all down the river for a trophy wife. Look at her, she is a traitor to all we believe. You will burn for this, you freak.” No matter how hard Joseph tried to explain himself, he could not. He talked about the pirate, the egg, and the Tears of Cortés, and his mother screamed in revelation, “My son is making love to the animalitos!” She fainted on the spot and a crowd of people began to laugh uncontrollably at the spectacle. Donicia began to cry and ran off into the fields. Before Donicia’s father could get hold of him, Joseph took Lelu and fled the scene. He went to one of his friends, a trustworthy shoemaker named Benny. He gave him the jewels and said, “Take this and the letter and split the wealth between my mother and Donicia’s family.” “But what will you do?” asked Benny in a concerned tone. “It doesn’t matter,” Joseph said. “I have what is of most value to me.” Lelu smiled and swayed her head back and forth awkwardly. Benny looked at the two of them with incredulous eyes and said, “Hey, whatever makes you happy, my friend.” An angry mob was approaching, so Benny showed them out his back door. Joseph thanked his friend and embraced him, and Lelu gave him a gentle kiss on the lips in thanks. It tasted like ripe watermelons with a little salt. Benny leaned against his door as he watched his longtime friend walk away with his beloved. As the sun began to set, he thought he saw something he never dared repeat. For as Joseph Ayala walked away with his baby giraffe, Benny looked at the Tears of Cortés. He thought he heard the sounds of a new day coming and swore that he was going insane.
—MJR Montoya, a writer and longtime fan of obscure heavy metal bands, was born, raised, and still loves his home in Mora, New Mexico. In addition to being a Rhodes Scholar, he tries being Batman, but cannot yet master fighting crime in tights. He has written a novel, a collection of poetry, and a collection of short stories (which includes “The Tears of Cortés”). He is still looking for publishers with a lot of ink and paper to give his work a home.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.